What lies between you and me?

attentiveness

Loneliness is an epidemic. That heart to heart connection with others, our world, our communities is lost as we race from one To Do to the next. Superficial greetings take the place of deep conversation, and we substitute more for better.

When was the last time you felt truly heard by another person–not heard so they could diagnose you or give you instructions for how to do better–but heard as though someone paused to notice the real you, the deep down you?

When was the last time you paused to consider another person, not as a means to an end on your own journey, but as a person with their own dreams and heart desires, their own wants and needs, their own untold story hoping to be heard?

When was the last time you paused to consider the world around you, from the beauty of nature to the miracle of your own next breath?

Perhaps our loneliness epidemic would be eased if we all were to slow down and notice each other, pause to realize we are here for each other,  and be vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to see and be seen.

Mary Oliver’s poems open us in so many ways– to nature, to each other, to our own hidden places. Perhaps this one on loneliness will speak to you today:

Loneliness

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or not.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

~ Mary Oliver ~

 

 

 

Wipe the dust off your soul.

soulwash

It is so easy to get discouraged when living a creative life. Your words are criticized; your paintings don’t sell. “They” don’t believe you have any promise. Sometimes the struggle to be commercially successful in a creative field can be so daunting that you abandon the art. But then you remember that art isn’t about “them” or “success” or “critical acclaim” at all. It’s about bringing your truths into the light, being creative, pushing yourself, being you.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Henri Rousseau, a forty year old toll collector who wanted to paint. His work was derided, and yet he continued. He found joy in the painting. Not until the end of his life did anyone take his work seriously. As summarized by Maria Popova:

Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway…. [Rousseau’s life is] an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.

The message from Rousseau’s life speaks to all of us: he was a success all along. He persevered with a remarkable resilience to produce work that spoke to him and pursued a passion that made him happy. That, the pursuit of great art, rather than the financial success was what gave his journey depth and meaning and lifted up his soul.

 

 

Err in the direction of kindness.

direction of kindness

What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.

Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.

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wingstoabird

So much depends on perspective. When we are mired in a difficult circumstance, it would be helpful to just lift up and fly above it and get a new perspective. Yet we are often trapped in the fetters of our own subjectivity, unable to realize that our current troubles are temporary, and we remain stuck in the problem and blind to any bigger picture.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch watchmaker who, along with her family, sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. Her actions were fraught with danger but compelled by moral certitude. In prayer, her soul took flight and lifted her out of the horror of the day into the beauty of a larger truth.

We, too, can turn to the comfort of a larger power, tap into the stillness behind the chaos, and take comfort that we do not need to have all the answers. We can let our souls take flight.

Paint your soul.

ownnature

 

We wear our souls on our sleeves really, especially those of us who are artists. The created work sings of hope or despair, love or hate, trust or deceit. Much of what we believe about life is reflected in our created worlds.

But each of us is an artist, really. Consider the created worlds each of us makes with our online presence. Do we share stories of hope and unity or of despair and dissension? Do we seek to unify or to tear apart? Do we spread the beautiful or the ugly? What are we putting out there into the world with our words and actions?

When we share with the world, are we sharing the best of ourselves?

 

 

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